JERUSALEM — If the faithful of the Middle East have their say, the dangers of intermarriage between Catholics and people of other faiths will be on the agenda of the Synod of Bishops’ Special Assembly for the Middle East.

The synod is scheduled to take place at the Vatican, Oct. 10-24.

Proselytizing of Catholics by Christians from other denominations and the need for greater outreach to Catholic foreign workers and others living temporarily in the region may also be under consideration at the synod.

The topics are coming from local Catholics who have offered suggestions in response to the pre-synod Lineamenta (guidelines) disseminated by the Vatican in January.

The seven Middle Eastern patriarchs (one from the Latin Patriarchate, the others from Eastern rites) in charge of the synod’s preparations will incorporate many of the suggestions into the document that will dictate the synod’s final agenda.

Pope Benedict XVI is expected to personally oversee the patriarchs’ deliberations during a pre-synod gathering in Cyprus in June.

Pope Benedict knows all too well the problems facing his dwindling flock. During his May 2009 pilgrimage to the Holy Land, local clergy and citizens told him of the hardships of living as a minority in a volatile, often war-ravaged region.

According to the Lineamenta , which can be found in English, Arabic, French, Portuguese and Italian on the Vatican’s website, the synod’s goals include strengthening Christians “in their identity through the word of God and the sacraments” and “deepening ecclesial communion” among various Catholic churches and Orthodox and Protestant Christians in the region.

Another goal is to “strengthen the witness we give to Jews, Muslims, believers and nonbelievers” in accordance with local laws, which vary from country to country.

The Vatican views the synod as an opportunity “to assess the social as well as the religious situation” of Middle East Christians, “so as to give Christians a clear vision of the significance of their presence in Muslim societies (Arab, Israeli, Turkish or Iranian), and their role and mission in each country.”

Doing so, says the Lineamenta, “involves reflecting on the current situation, which is a difficult one of conflict, instability and political and social evolution in the majority of our countries.”

Not Common Procedure

Father Peter Madros, who with another priest from the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem is collecting the responses from the Holy Land, said the Vatican’s decision to seek input from ordinary Catholics is not common procedure.

“It is usual to ask some laypeople who are experts, but to ask all the people is unusual,” he said.

Father Madros, a biblical scholar who works to make the Bible accessible to the Arabic-speaking public, attributed the Vatican’s decision to the unique challenges facing Christians in the volatile Middle East.

“They are more deeply involved in real life” than the bishops and therefore “stress the hardships and distress they experience due to political and religious factors,” Father Madros explained.

The document asks clergy, lay leaders and ordinary Catholics a wide range of practical questions, such as “What can be done to stop the emigration of Christians from the Middle East?” and “How can we follow and stay in touch with Christians who have emigrated?”

In a section entitled “What does communion in the Church mean?” respondents are asked how communion is manifested among the various churches of the Middle East and how relations among the churches can be improved.

The Lineamenta recognizes the larger societies in which Christians live and that they are contributing members of these societies.

As such, it asks what their churches are doing to provide pastoral care for Catholic immigrants and to “protect them against abuse and exploitation by the state, by agencies and by employers.”
It also asks respondents, “How can we contribute to the improvement of the social environment in the various countries in our region?”

Father Madros said Middle East Christians, whether from Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia or Israel, must contend with issues most other Christians can only imagine.

“Islamic fundamentalism imposes not only demographic pressure but also intellectual pressure,” Father Madros said. “Jewish fundamentalists believe the Holy Land is the privilege of the Hebrew people. Christian Zionists feel the same way.”

One of the greatest threats facing local Catholics, Father Madros said, are “Christian sects, especially from the United States, who try to take advantage of people’s ignorance and poverty” in order to proselytize them.

Father Madros said the responses he has received thus far have been heartening.

Some, he said, have called for expanded interreligious dialogue between Christians, Muslims and Jews “in order to find the positive points between us.”

Some suggested meeting with Jews to explore the Jewish roots of Christianity and to explore the common traditions held by Arab Christians and Arab Muslims.

“It’s clear we have to start early, with the youth,” Father Madros said, his smile hopeful.

Whatever ultimately makes it to the synod’s agenda, Father Madros said, “the goal is to keep what little is left of the Christian presence in the Middle East.”

Michele Chabin writes from Jerusalem.